Serenades to Salieri: Gonzales’ Smackdown

Today marks 188 years since the death of Antonio Salieri, which provides an apropos opportunity to reflect on Salieri’s life and death through (of course) the music of Chilly Gonzales.

Antonio Salieri has certainly been cemented in the minds of the current generation as Mozart’s admiring antagonist, but in reality, Salieri was a highly respected composer and teacher who made great strides in Italian Opera, and influenced his students; Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt among them. After his death in 1825, his compositions slowly fell out of favour, and were rarely played up until the popularity of Peter Shaffer’s play and subsequent film “Amadeus” rekindled interest in Salieri. Since then, the name Salieri has become synonymous with someone who has a high degree of respect for a rival, but at the same time is filled with jealous rage. In the play and movie, Mozart is portrayed as a character with a penchant for dirty talk and women, diametrically opposed to the grace and beauty of his music. Throughout the movie, the crusty Salieri schemes against the zany Mozart, while secretly becoming lost in the sheer beauty of Mozart’s compositions.

In this light, it would seem that Gonzales penned “Salieri Serenade”, as a sort of “tongue-partially-in-cheek” stance that despite his pranksta-rapper exterior, he holds incredible musical prowess. Keep in mind, “Presidential Suite” was released 2 years prior to Solo Piano, which caught everyone by surprise. So amazing are his talents, that other artists will simultaneously be in awe and insanely jealous of Gonzales. Rival artists’ music will be fade into the background when compared to Gonzales – serenades to Salieri, if you will.

The opening lines are haltingly spoken by a woman with a wonderful German accent (at the time, a girlfriend of a musician friend of Gonzales):

These are baroque times
And so we must become switched-on

Baroque in this sense could have been playing on the double-sound of the word ‘broke’ and the baroque era of excessive grandeur, which ended in 1725 – 25 years before either Salieri or Mozart were born. In either case, there is a realization that something must change. “Switched-on” (a fairly common term in the 1960s) indicate that other performers have to wake up and realize that they have to either rise to the musical challenge set before them, so be relegated to the dustbins of history.

From the chorus, one can observe Gonzales’ grandstanding, with Feist breathlessly laying out the throwdown:

You’re thinking you’re the bomb
But you’re barely a grenade

Gonzales serves notice to other songwriters: “don’t be so self-assured; compared to my prowess, your music is but a trifle.”

The first rhetorical question (Don’t you know that life is a masquerade?), not only self-references Gonzales’ own persona, but also underscores the fact that all of us (to varying degrees) put on a false show or pretence (a la “Eminence Front” by The Who). This is especially true in the Rap genre, where ‘fronting’ is expected and promoted. Masquerade balls would have also been common in Salieri’s day.

In the main lyric, Gonzales again reminds rival performers how inferior their music is:

I don’t suffer from a lack of accolades
If you do, you know who to blame

Again indicating that Gonzales’ music obliterated their music to the point where it’s not even acknowledged.

The next lines allude to the fact that most modern performers don’t do their homework on the mathematical aspects what really makes a great, emotional song. Great music can’t be merely sketched out in a diagram – it has to be understood inherently:

And most art ain’t Mozart
And most flows weren’t written in a flowchart

And finally, the piece de resistance – Gonzales’ level of skill is so unattainable, that other artists will eventually resort to sheer and utter jealously, which will taint their music forever:

But with melodies like these
Jealousy might seize your enemies

Finally, Gonzales adds a touch of self-depreciation that only serves to underscore his assertion:

I’m a despot – there’s no dispute
I’m gonna persecute all musical prostitutes
I know a ton of ‘em
Plus I used to be one of ‘em
So now I make fun of ‘em

Gonzales is heir-apparent to the king of the musical throne, and other artists that prostitute themselves to record companies only serves to degenerate and taint the musical freedom that Gonzales obviously enjoys. And he’s speaking from experience, being a former record label prostitute himself. Other artists are obviously worthy of taunts such as these, since they have made a poor career choice. In some strange sense, Gonzales would like nothing better than his words to motivate artists of today to follow his lead, sharpen their talents and abandon their musical masters (and possibly enter into a battle with Gonzales).

Underscoring the lyrics is a halting 18th-century lilt, replete with an underlying tension, combined with pulsating synths, drum machines and gunshots (possibly indicating ‘duel’ motif).

The entire song is a brilliant mix of events that transpired two hundred years ago, but elegantly brought into Gonzales’ modern vision of music, and being a ‘man of his time’. Although Gonzales’ message is over the top (in keeping with most rap hyperbole), many aspects of the song can be applied to other situations. We all have “Mozarts” and “Salieris” in our lives; how we handle ourselves is the key to having our work remembered in a positive light, or forgotten in the annals of time. There’s nothing wrong with a positive grudge or rival to bring out the best in us, but there is a great deal wrong with blaming other more talented people for your own failures.

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